Earlier this week, Tom Sheldon caused a flurry when he published an opinion piece in Nature:
While the article casts preprints, preprint servers, and scientists who post their work to preprint servers as potential sources of misinformation, its arguments better support the case that science reporters should act more responsibly. Full disclosure: as a scientist who posts [some of] their work to a preprint server, I have a horse in this race.
…as someone who has worked for years with researchers and journalists to ensure responsible coverage of science in the media, I fear that this method of publication holds substantial risks for the broader community — risks that are not being given proper consideration by the champions of preprint. Weak work that hasn’t been reviewed could get overblown in the media. Conversely, better work could be ignored.
Yes, that risk exists. But if “weak work that hasn’t been reviewed” gets overblown in the media, the media bears some of the responsibility. Peer review isn’t a magic wand that guarantees that only solid work gets published, and it isn’t a substitute for skepticism. Reporters have a responsibility to evaluate the evidence in a paper whether it is peer reviewed or not.
As soon as research is in the public domain, there is nothing to stop a journalist writing about it, and rushing to be the first to do so. Imagine early findings that seem to show that climate change is natural or that a common vaccine is unsafe.
We don’t have to imagine such findings; they have been published (Andrew Wakefield, anyone?).
Preprints on subjects such as those could, if they become a story that goes viral, end up misleading millions, whether or not that was the intention of the authors.
And that’s exactly what happened, except the papers in question weren’t preprints. They were peer-reviewed articles in prestigious journals. As if he’s making my point for me, Sheldon continues:
What we have no shortage of are examples in which public understanding has been distorted by media coverage of ambiguous or just downright bad science. Take the (now retracted) paper which claimed that genetically modified maize (corn) gave rats cancer (G.-E. Séralini et al. Food Chem. Toxicol. 50, 4221–4231; 2012) — its carefully orchestrated publicity campaign ensured that journalists could not seek outside scrutiny before running their news stories. The science was poor, but the claims were intriguing.
Did you get that? Reporters covered a bad, peer-reviewed paper, and somehow that’s an argument against preprints.
Many journalists gave up the chance to vet information so as not to be late to the story.
In other words, many journalists acted irresponsibly. Tellingly, Sheldon does not present any examples of reporting based on preprints that turned out to be wrong. He gives one example of a published paper (above) and one of a conference poster, and concludes
Preprints could create similar pressures, and similarly flawed coverage — but much more often, and on a larger scale. [my emphasis]
Really? There are close to a million and a half preprints on arXiv, some tens of thousands on bioRxiv, and you couldn’t find an example of bad reporting based on them. What scale do preprint servers have to reach before the problems you’ve imagined manifest?
Sheldon isn’t wrong. It is possible that preprints could contribute to misinforming the public. They have probably already done so. But so have peer-reviewed, published papers, and so have irresponsible and credulous reporters. My gripe with the article is its assumption, for which no supporting evidence is given, that preprints are the problem.
It is not enough to shrug and blame journalists, and it is unhelpful to dismiss those journalists who can accurately convey complex science to a mass audience.
Let’s unpack that a bit. It’s not enough to “shrug and blame journalists,” but it’s also not helpful to assume that journalists don’t share the blame when they report on bad science because they failed to apply due diligence. And who exactly is dismissing journalists with a talent for explaining complex concepts?
Scientists need to be part of these debates — with their eyes open to how the media works.
Yes, they need to, and they are.
Journalists do include appropriate caveats or even decide not to run a story when conclusions are tentative, but that happens only because they have been given enough time and breathing space to assess it. If the scientific community isn’t careful, preprints could take that resource away.
Journalists do sometimes include appropriate caveats; they also sometimes spectacularly fail to do so. When they do, it’s not only because they have the time but because they are acting responsibly and applying appropriate skepticism. And no, preprints aren’t going to take that resource away. If you rushed a badly researched story to print because you feared some other reporter might scoop you, you gave that resource away.
In spite of what I’ve said so far, I don’t entirely disagree with Sheldon. There is good reason to think carefully about the risks of preprints, and there’s also good reason for scientists to think carefully about how their work will be reported. What irks me is that I can’t find any hint in the article that Sheldon thinks journalists share the blame when they sensationalize bad science.
Throughout the article, scientists and preprints are the problem; journalists are the victims. It’s scientific community, not reporters, who “must take measures to keep preprints from distorting the public’s understanding of science.” Preprints pressure reporters; they rob them of time and breathing space. It’s not my fault I rushed out the story without doing any research; the preprint made me do it!
Sheldon’s final list of questions continues the trend of assigning no responsibility to journalists:
How can we have preprints and support good journalism? Should scientific societies or preprint advocates develop guidelines for what should and should not be posted as a preprint? Should there be a preprint moratorium on any research with public-health implications? Should universities or researchers ever publicize a preprint?
Notice that none of those questions are about what journalists should do? I saved the best for last, though. Sheldon’s final question:
Should all preprints be emblazoned with a warning aimed at journalists that work has not been peer reviewed?
You mean a warning like this?